Cover Story

Gone with the wind

"Gone with the wind" Continued...

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

How critical is cheap energy for developing countries? Bryce points out that Africa-a continent with 14 percent of the world's population-has developed only 3 percent of the world's electricity. Of the 15 countries in the world with the highest death rates, 14 of them are in Africa. Of the 22 countries with the highest infant mortality rates, 21 of them are in Africa. Many factors contribute to those high death rates, but a widespread availability of cheap energy would likely make life healthier for millions.

Back in the United States, if wind and solar remain unrealistic for large-scale, cost-effective energy, natural gas has already proven itself on both counts: Natural gas provided nearly a quarter of the nation's energy for electricity in 2009, second only to coal.

Advances in technology over the last five years have created a mini-revolution in extracting natural gas using new methods, opening up new gas supplies all over the country. Hayward of AEI says fields are so vast, it's conceivable that the United States could become an exporter of natural gas over the next few decades. The new technology could also hold promise for developing countries still creating their power systems, if they embrace natural gas as a major source of energy that is far cleaner than coal.

Peter Huber, author of The Bottomless Well (Basic Books, 2005), sees another major use for natural gas: transportation. The United States consumes massive amounts of oil for vehicles each year, but Huber thinks natural gas could compete. He notes that some 10 million vehicles worldwide already run on natural gas. Vehicles would require more natural gas to travel the same distance, but Huber says modifications to vehicles over the coming years could accommodate the change. And since natural gas is cheaper than oil, the option could still be cost effective.

Major challenges remain: Natural gas pipelines-regulated by the federal government-would need to run to the gas stations that supply fuel, and the fuel still wouldn't work for every vehicle. And many critics cite safety concerns against using natural gas in vehicles.

Critics also worry that more drilling for natural gas could lead to groundwater contamination for nearby neighborhoods-a concern natural gas companies will need to acknowledge and monitor.

Natural gas advocates emphasize that gas isn't an energy silver bullet, and that any major energy transition will still take decades. But they insist the technology holds more long-term promise than wind or solar. In the meantime, they say we shouldn't abandon one of the best fuels we have: oil. Despite the devastating BP oil spill, oil advocates point out that major spills are rare, and that relying more heavily on imports could lead to tanker spills-already much more common than well leaks.

With any major energy transition still years away, Hayward says oil is here to stay for at least decades. "The 'problem with oil' is that it's such a terrific fuel, it's hard to match its performance and cost with anything else." Bryce agrees, and bristles when politicians complain about an abundance of fossil fuels.

"Without those fossil fuels, we would be returned to the incredible environmental destruction and nasty living conditions and incredibly hard labor of the 19th century," he says. "We would be living in dire poverty."
Email Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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